Even though Angkor Wat is the most photographed Khmer monument, nothing approaches the actual experience of seeing this temple. Frank Vincent grasped this sensation over 100 years ago.
The general appearance of the wonder of the temple is beautiful and romantic as well as impressive and grand it must be seen to be understood and appreciated. One can never look upon the ensemble of the vat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up onto the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.
Angkor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 208 hectares (500 acres) defined by a laetrile wall. The first evidence of the site is a moat with a long sandstone causeway (length 250 meters, 820 feet; width 12 meters, 39 feet) crossing it and serving as the main access to the monument. The moat is 200 meters (656 feel) wide with a perimeter of 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles).
The west entrance begins with steps leading to a raised sandstone terrace in the shape of a cross at the foot of the long causeway. Giant stone lions on each side of the terrace guard the monument. Looking straight ahead, one can see at the end of the causeway the entry gate with three towers of varying heights and with collapsed upper portion. This entry tower hides the full view of the five towers of the central group. A long covered failure with square columns and a curved roof extends along the moat to the left and right of the entry tower. This is the majestic facade of Angkor Wat and a fine example of classical Khmer architecture.
Helen Churchill candee must have been standing on this terrace almost 70 years ago when she wrote Any architect would thrill at the harmony of the fasade, an unbroken stretch of repeated pillars leading from the far angles of the structure to the central opening, which is dominated, by three imposing towers with broken summits. This facade originally had another row of pillars with a roof. Evidence of this remains in a series of round holes set in square based in front of the standing pillars.
Tip Before proceeding along the causeway turns right, go down the steps of the terrace and walk along the path a few meters for a view of all five towers of Angkor Wat. Return to the center of the terrace and walk down the causeway towards the main part of the temple. The left-hand side of the causeway has more original sand stone than the right-hand side, which was restored by the French.
Tip: Some of the pillars in the galleries of this courtyard have inscriptions written in Sanskrit and Khmer. On either side of the courtyard there are two libraries of similar form but smaller than the ones along the entrance causeway The Gallery of 1,000 Buddha’s, on the right, once contained many images dating from the period when Angkor Wat was Backlist. Only a few of these figures remain today. The gallery on the left is the Hall of Echoes, so named because of its unusual acoustics.
Tip: To hear the resonance in the Hall of Echoes walk to the end of the gallery, stand in the left-hand corner with your back to the wall, thump your chest and listen carefully. Those who want to visit the library should leave the door at the end of this gallery. There is a good view of the upper level of Angkor Wat from this library.
Return to the center of the cross-shaped galleries and continue walking toward the central towers. Another set of stairs alerts one to the continuing ascent. The outer wall of the gallery of the second level, closest to the visitor, (100 by 115 meters, 328 by 377 feet), is solid and undecorated, probably to create an environment for meditation by the priests and the king.
The starkness of the exterior of the second level gallery is offset by the decoration of the interior. Over 1,500 Apsaras (celestial dancers) line the walls of the gallery offering endless visual and spiritual enchantment. These graceful and beautiful females delight all visitors. They were crated by the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
When one first walks into the courtyard the multitude of female figures on the walls and in the niches may seem repetitive but as one moves closer and looks carefully one sees that every one of these celestial nymphs is different, the elaborate coiffures, headdresses and jewellery befit, yet never overpower, these ‘ethereal inhabitants of the heavens’ Apsaras appear at Angkor Wat for the first time in twos and threes. These groups break with the traditional of decoration kin other part of the temple by standing with arms linked in coquettish postures and always in frontal view except for the feet, which appear in profile.
Pang, a Cambodian poet, in a tribute to the Khmer ideal of female beauty wrote of the Apsaras in the seventeenth century. These millions of gracious figures, filling you with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart sated! They were never carved by the hands of men! They were created by the gods living, lovely, breathing women! Only the king and the high priest were allowed on the upper or third level of Angkor Wat, it lacks the stately covered galleries of the other two but is the base of the five central towers, one of which contains the most sacred image of the temple.
The square base (60 meters, 197 feet long) of the upper level is 13 meters (43 feet) high and raises over 40 meters (131 feet) above the second level. Twelve sets of stairs with 40 steps each one in the center of each side and two at the corners-ascend at a 70-degree angle giving access to this level.
Tip: The stairway to the third level is less steep on the west (center) but those who suffer from vertigo should use the south stairway (center, which has concrete steps and a handrail. the steps on all sides are exceptionally narrow. the visitor should ascend and descend sideways. All the repetitive elements of the architectural composition of Angkor Wat appear on the upper level. The space is divided into a cross-shaped area defined with covered galleries and four paved courts. An entry tower with a porch and columns is at the top of each stairway. Passages supported on both sides with double rows of columns link the entry tower to the central structure. The corners of the upper level are dominated by the four towers. Steps both separate and link the different parts. A narrow covered gallery with a double row of pillars and windows and balusters on the outer side surrounds the third level. The Central sanctuary rises on a tiered base 42 meters (137 feet) above the upper level. The highest of the five towers, it is equal in height to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This central sanctuary sheltered the sacred image of the temple. It originally had four porches opening to the cardinal directions. The central core was walled up some time after the sacking of Angkor in the middle if the fifteenth century. Nearly 500 years later French archaeologists discovered a vertical shaft 27 meters (89 feet) below the surface in the center of the upper level with a hoard of gold objects at the base. At the summit the layout of Angkor Wat reveals itself at last. The view is a spectacle of beauty befitting the Khmer’s architectural genius for creating harmonious proportions.
Tip : Walk all the way around the outer gallery of the upper level to enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside, the causeway in the west and the central group of towers. You have not quite an aerial view the Phnom is not high enough for that …But you can see enough to realize something of the superb audacity of the architects who dared to embark upon a single plan measuring nearly a mile square. Your point of view is diagonal, across the north-west corner of the moat to the soaring lotus-tip of the central sanctuary, you can trace the perfect balance of every faultless line, Worshipful for its beauty bewildering in its stupendous size, there is no other point from which the Wat appears so inconceivable an undertaking to have been attempted-much less achieved by human brains and hands.